Corporate 2 Creative, Issue 001: Martina Berlin, FIKA Event Productions


Martina talks through her experience of failure as well as pivotal points in her career where she has made the decision to change track.

Martina Berlin is the Founder of FIKA Event Productions, an event production company specialising in mid- to high-end and luxury events. She has spent the majority of her career producing events for the likes of Pandora UK, collaborating on partnerships with brands including Benefit Cosmetics, Tumblr and Hearst Magazines UK, as well as working at the multi-award-winning international events agency Quintessentially Events.

Hi Martina, can you give us a little introduction for the people that don't know you and want to hear what you do?

I'm Swedish, feel I have to mention it first, it’s such a big part of my identity! And I have been doing events management for about 10-years now, first studying at university and arranging events on the side, whether it's personal or for work. My first experience of putting on an event was by myself for me and my friends, and that’s where my interest was born.

I have started my own events production company called FIKA Event Productions. I offer my services as a consultant event producer, I have been doing so since December 2018. Throughout my career I've worked my way up the ranks, from interning in certain jobs to Production Assistant to Event Manager to Senior Event Manager and now I’ve finally reached my ultimate goal of Event Producer for my own company. The fact that I have set out on this new, personal mission is even more exciting.

That’s what I’m really interested in, where you started at the beginning of your career and how you got to where you are today with starting your own venture. So, take me right back to the beginning, what were your initial steps towards your career in events?

A lot of people say that you can't study events, because it's something that you have to learn through experience you gain on the job and that it's how many times you have put on an event that counts. For me, it wasn’t such a clear cut process of gaining experience or starting to study events.

I started studying a business degree in Sweden, and it wasn't my thing. The material just didn't sink in because it didn't resonate with me, so I went to a student advisor for careers and education. I spoke to the student advisor for over an hour about my likes and dislikes and so on. He recognised that a lot of the qualities I wanted from a course translated to an event management degree.

He dug out this one-page description of the course and everything on the page felt really relevant to my personality, I loved every aspect. It was like a perfect fusion of a mini-business degree with creative elements running parallel. And I thought that it was definitely the one for me! I signed up and studied it for a year in Sweden and then realised I just wanted to explore events elsewhere, as the events market there isn’t as developed as it is in England, so I flew over to Bournemouth where I started university.

How long were you on your business course for before you realised it wasn’t for you? Did you ever pinpoint what was missing for you?

A year and I failed everything… pretty much. It was horrible. It just didn't sink in at all. I was doing all the studying, and I put in all the hours. And yet, every exam was a complete fail. I think I passed one exam! It's what my Dad had studied, and he wanted me to study too - he was the one that said maybe university isn't for you and there is no pressure to continue. I think he saw my brother and me following a similar career path and as a result, I hadn't really considered anything else.

I started to really question the whole concept of studying because I didn't fit into this one course. And then when I found events, just like that, it felt like everything was right, and there were flying colours and everything! It was so satisfying to have actually chosen the right thing for me.

Even with all the failure, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

Did other people’s doubts affect whether you thought the university route was for you?

No, I always knew I wanted to do it again. Even with all the failure, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I knew that I could do the work and that my work ethic was strong enough to get me through. That's what got me through the business exams - I always gave it my all, yet I couldn't actually deliver the results. It’s so fascinating looking back, it that was not a good time in my life. [She smiles and laughs]

It is all part of the process. When you have come so far in your career, it's easy to brush over those times, and forget that it is an essential part of learning.

Yes, it really was good that I changed direction.

From what you know of today’s market, do you think it is necessary for someone to study events? Would you go down the same career route via university?

That’s an interesting question, I only reflected on that recently, I don't think you need to study. The critical thing is to have a strong work ethic, be organised and have excellent project management skills. Also not be daunted by the prospect of eventually being solely in charge of coordinating a project, and meeting associated deadlines.

But then, looking back, I enjoyed my time at university, and I don't know if I would do it differently. The thing I find with people that go straight into the industry is that they have a distinct advantage due to the extra time they've had on the job compared to those who spent three or four years studying. They have honed their core event management skills at an earlier age, that is something that I was a bit envious of when I entered the workplace. When a 27-year-old who's already at the same level as I am now in my early 30s, I think to myself, ‘Wow, you are so impressive!’ It is a consequence of what they have learned from those additional practices.

Would you say that when you got your first events role, you don't necessarily think that your degree helped to jump the career ladder in any way?

Yes, I don't think the fact of having a degree gave me a particular edge. Although I think my achievements stood out as I finished with first class honours in my course. I think that added to my CV but securing a job is a lot about the person, the personality and their confidence levels. Going to university taught me a lot about research skills as well as aspects of nailing a pitch, portraying the creative design and planning my work; all essential parts of my job.

Take me through your days after university. You are fresh into the job market with a degree in hand, where did you go next?

That is what was beneficial about the course I chose, I had a one-year placement in the events industry during my third year and then returned to university for a fourth year to complete my studies. I actually had two placements because the first one didn't work out. Again, much like the business course, I chose a role that wasn’t suited for me, it was terrifying actually. Within three months, I hated it, and it broke my confidence and knocked me down a lot.

I see a trend of you ‘failing’, and you not being afraid to pick yourself up and try something better suited.

Rachel, you make me sound so good! [We both laugh]

I’ve never reflected on it like that. I see now that I didn’t seek comfort but I was looking for a positive outcome, and I had to assure myself that everything was going to be okay, even when I was so broken down. The company tried to put me into other roles but I knew they weren’t right and I told them it wasn't going to work.

Even when I got my next job at Quintessentially Events, which has led me to where I am in my career today, the company I was leaving said to me, ‘I think you're making a mistake, I don't think events are going to be good for you.’ It really shows you how little they knew about me. It was the best thing for me to believe in myself and ignore their advice and move on to the next company. I recognised the initial misfit because of the type of events work so I found what I wanted to work on and focused on getting there.

What type of events did you want to move away from?

My first placement was in an executive role, and it was mostly selling events and venues. I’ve noticed about myself that when it is not a good fit for me, it won’t click in my head. All the venues, all the stats - I just failed and failed again, I just kept getting it wrong. The job didn't involve any creative production; it was more sales-y and involved me placing existing events in venue spaces.

The Quintessentially Events role was all about creative production, organisation, logistics - it was just perfect! All of their events look so beautiful, aspirational and inspiring.

What kept you going? What stopped you doubting yourself and stopped you listening to the people saying events might not be for you?

Possibly, it was part naivety, and I didn’t see it as a dangerous choice to try a new type of events company. I always like to see what I am going through with perspective to recognise it's not going to be the worst thing that happens in my life. I felt as though the type of events at Quintessentially Events spoke to me so personally that there was nothing that would get me down, nothing will stop me from getting there - I just remember feeling very strongly.

This seemed to be your second transition from the corporate to the creative world - firstly, your business course, secondly your corporate/sales events. Can you explain what creativity means to you and within your industry?

In events management you have to bring it back to that fusion of project management and creativity because I'm not a purely creative person, it is not my comfort zone. You also have to have the artistic eye, I usually call it creative logistics. I'm proficient in both areas, and when you bring them together, that’s when great things happen. You have to see and appreciate what makes something beautiful to know how to make it happen.

What were the realities of your job at Quintessentially Events?

It was an around the clock job, my brain was always buzzing, it was super stimulating - I just loved it. I got the ideal amount of working on the laptop and site visits, and the right amount of meeting suppliers, new clients, creating mood boards, dreaming-up the events, and working with designers and florists to make it all look beautiful. It was everything I wanted, and it took over my world.

You can organise and plan and dream-up all these events, but if you don't have the people to deliver your vision, you will fail.

When you started this job you were starting anew in the luxury event world, how did you build your network? How did you develop that supplier list?

Suppliers are what makes a good events manager, you need your black book of contacts. It is so important to be meeting people, getting business cards, frequently connecting online with people, and that is what makes you look good. You can organise and plan and dream-up all these events, but if you don't have the people to deliver your vision, you will fail. This is why my suppliers are my most important asset, for sure. And I make sure that I treat them really, really well on my events.

Tell me about how you start to establish your top suppliers, that ultimately make it to your black book. How did you go about that process?

Luckily, I was at an agency, and we were continually getting approached by different suppliers that wanted to meet us, and we would book them on our events. I would also attend evening events where I would meet people, and there are always a lot of event showcases around London. You are continuously learning something and meeting new suppliers.

There's something to be said for using a good mix of new suppliers when you start producing events because you don't want the events to all look the same. I know the same suppliers can work with different briefs, but you want to expand that network as much as possible too. I like to use my most trustworthy suppliers in combination with a sprinkle of new ones.

It can always feel so risky and scary when using new suppliers. That's a big part of the job as well, you can get so comfortable using the same suppliers when you know they will deliver. You don't need to worry about them, and you get excellent service, and then you bring in a new one, and immediately you just bring up the stress factor by 10%. It can be totally worth it when it goes well. You can get an exceptional result for a client for taking that extra risk.

In your opinion what makes a fantastic supplier? Do you have a top three checklist of wants?

Reliable. Personable. New and fresh.

It is great when someone can bring an extra bit of innovation towards the broader project. I try to give my suppliers the bigger picture of the event, so they don't feel that they're just this one, little piece of the puzzle and are blind to the rest of the production. I find when you involve them in all aspects they can contribute more. When you include them, you can judge how they react and see if they bring anything else to the table.

Tell me where you went next after Quintessentially Events.

Once I finished that placement year, I went back to uni, and then Quintessentially Events asked me back again after my final year of study, I did another two and a half years with them. I started as Production Assistant, and within a few months I got promoted to Events Manager, which was this a big scary, scary step. I was asking myself 'Am I good enough?' and 'Can I do this?' And then suddenly you're just doing it. I fit into that role well, and then it became a part of my identity, so I really grew in that company.

How would you say your support network was at the time of your promotion?

The support structure was great for my day-to-day job. When it came to personal support, there was one person in particular that really pushed me through that time. This was my essential support, and it was vital for me at the beginning to be able to check my decisions with that someone I trusted.

What did that person offer to you?

It was tough advice at times but also a lot of emotional support, which really got me through moments of self-doubt. She would say 'Of course you are good enough, you can do this.' And in fact, when I needed it, she would take a smart approach, and she'd say 'Well, maybe you're just not meant for events.' She knew me so well that it just spurred me on.

I remember when she said that comment, it really hurt. And I immediately thought, no way am I going to let that beat me! Deep down I knew I had it within me and that comment drove me forward.

You’ve gone from the agency side at Quintessentially Events where you've established a good network, from there you moved on to an in-house role at Pandora UK. Tell me about this transition.

What I always loved when I worked at an agency was when we worked with brands. The reason I love brand events is that you can build this personality behind the brand through an event. So when people experience a brand like Pandora, I would ask myself what's the company’s brand DNA and how can I bring it to life?

When the Pandora job came up, it was just perfect. My job title was an Events Manager, and I got promoted to a Senior Events Manager role within one year. They hadn't had a position like it before, so I was the first events manager they had, before I started the teams would produce their own events, which is quite a significant strain on them.

The market Pandora operates in is the affordable luxury segment and my suppliers come from a world of high-end luxury. I was able to apply them to the more mid- to affordable-luxury events, it was a great fit because every event looked aspirational and desirable to their audience.

Do you have a career highlight?

There are two different highlights, the first could be relatable for those who work in events because it was my first event that I got to manage myself. It was a big personal moment. It was a party for 700 people, and the theme was based on the movie that the client had seen, focused on this fantastic house party. It was down to me to bring that concept to life. I worked day and night on the project - I made it so detailed, I wanted it to be perfect. I think this event stands out because it was the first one that really felt like it was mine; it was all on me, I was no longer assisting someone else’s event. It was a memorable moment. I also carried out a flawless event execution.

The second was an event I put on for Pandora. It was the autumn, winter selling where the Pandora sales team were showcasing the new collections to franchise partners. Pandora had a townhouse available to them so, I turned it into this autumn and winter inspiration house. When guests arrived at the house, they felt this cold autumnal/winter vibe throughout, and the main focus of the event was the showroom. It was this immersive world. The first room was the autumn showroom, it had freshly laid grass and this big oak tree in one of the corners that I had positioned to make the background lighting look like the sun shining through. There was accompanying audio that was birds singing to make you feel as if you were in a forest, it also smelt of mulberry and quince. You would continue to walk through the drapes, and then you were in the winter showroom with white carpet and fake snow, and it smelt of cinnamon and cloves. It had a fireplace and the sounds of a crackling fire.

I had done similar events at Quintessential Events but there would always be another focus, such as a birthday or anniversary, so it was something different to create this immersive new world for the seasonal collection launch.

Do you have any advice for when things don't go to plan?

A great piece of advice I was given is the gracious swan concept: you paddle like hell to fix the problem, but to the exterior everything's fine, and you're still smiling even though you don’t feel like that on the inside; if there is an absolute mess going on around you, you fix it.

After working for Pandora for four years you left to start your own events business, tell me about the move to self-employment.

I’m used to working with a big team of people bring different experiences and inspiration but now it's just me. I’ve had to learn a lot of other skill and gain knowledge on the strategic thought behind events, which is an essential piece of the puzzle. I’ve learned that it's important to question the ‘why’ aspect of an event, instead of just the 'how'.

I would say that after I left Quintessentially Events, I was working as a mini-agency within Pandora. I would view every team/department as one client; they all had different stakeholders and types of guests so it would keep me stimulated with the variety of events.

It came to a point when every year it was relatively similar, there would be seasonal sell-ins and press launches for the new collections etc. It got to a point when I knew these events so well that I would wonder how much creativity and fresh ideas I was adding to them. That's what really inspired me at the beginning of last year to look into pursuing a more personal path so that I don't lose this creative streak altogether. It was appealing for me to get inspiration from other places, other clients, other sources.

It worked out well as Pandora was going through organisational changes, and my role was one of those affected. That's what inspired me to finally get the guts to go do it and set up FIKA Event Productions. Pandora set out a proposition that I couldn't resist so after my time there came to an end, they wanted to keep me on as a consultant.

It is really scary starting a business but I was lucky and fortunate enough to have my first client lined up. You never know how it's going to go, and now I'm having to work myself hard to find other business. It can be daunting but it has been good, and it keeps me on my toes.

I make sure I keep the conversation with potential clients going because it might lead to something, not necessarily in the next two to three months but further down the line.

We live in such a busy world and with an ever-changing landscape for events, PR and marketing, the core of the events world is to bring people together for quality time.

What does the name FIKA Event Productions mean to you?

The name brings me back to where I started, my Swedish heritage. I love the meaning of the word Fika in Sweden, it is this social phenomenon of making time to catch-up over tea, coffee and cake with your friends and family for a moment of quality time - it encompasses what events are about, bringing people together.

We live in such a busy world and with an ever-changing landscape for events, PR and marketing, the core of the events world is to bring people together for quality time. When companies consider removing them from their marketing calendar I think it is the wrong thing to do, it is such a unique, connecting experience that you can’t replicate online. Fika really represents that, it is taking that time to meet people and not to forget the power of actually having a real conversation.

You get to be in this beautiful environment of an event where you all come together for the same reasons, and that is where you meet like-minded people.

I love that no one sees the behind the scenes and lead up to the event but they walk in, and everything is perfect. I like to provide that mystery. When I'm on-site at events, I take a moment to look around to watch people smile and be happy.

Well, you certainly have the track record for creating beautiful events, Martina. Thank you for joining me today and being part of my blog series on career change, from corporate to creative.

Thank you so much!

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